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New Ways to Heal Broken Bones

In decades past, treatment for broken and fractured bones usually consisted of setting the bone back in its proper place and holding it in place with a cast. Although that tried-and-true technique is still used today, advances in orthopedic technology are helping these injuries to heal quicker and more strongly than ever before. 

New devices, techniques

One relatively new treatment for broken bones is an external bone growth stimulator. This device, worn on the outside of the body, can be used to help treat nonunions, which are broken bones that fail to heal. The stimulator delivers electromagnetic or ultrasonic waves to the injured area, which encourages healing. Daily use of the bone growth stimulator is required for it to work.

Some pharmaceutical products have also been shown to speed healing of bone fractures. One drug approved for the treatment of osteoporosis, teriparatide (Forteo), may help certain types of broken bones to heal more quickly. Teriparatide is a synthetic form of parathyroid hormone, which works by stimulating bone growth and thickness. The medicine comes in an injectable form and it is usually given once a day.

Special proteins

One of the latest treatments to fix broken bones involves a substance known as bone morphogenetic protein (BMP). These proteins naturally exist in the human body, but applying them to injured bones has been shown to help repair the affected areas. Two forms of bone morphogenetic protein, BMP-2 and BMP-7, have been approved by the FDA for healing bone fractures. The proteins are usually placed at the site of the break in the form of an implant. Some researchers also think that BMP inhibitors, which are substances that block the healing actions of BMP in the body, may negatively affect the treatment of broken bones. Blocking these inhibitors could also help bones heal more quickly.

Stem-cell therapy may also help speed the treatment of broken bones. Stem cells are special cells that have the ability to develop into many different types of cells in the body. Several studies have shown that certain types of stem cells can help form new bone and allow it to grow stronger than broken bones treated without stem cells.

Preventing broken bones

Advances in computer technology may soon help prevent fractured bones. A sophisticated imaging technique was recently introduced that allows orthopedists to accurately estimate the thickness of your cortical bone—the hard outer layer of bone. Doctors believe that a thinning of the cortical bone is an early warning sign of a future fracture. This new technique uses computed tomography (a special type of X-ray) along with mathematical models to get data about cortical bone thickness. Experts think this technique may be an improvement over bone-mineral density tests, the current way to assess a patient's fracture risk.